The term “unicorn” was coined in a 2013 Techcrunch article by Aileen Lee, founder and managing partner of Palo Alto’s Cowboy Ventures. She used it to describe American software companies that were less than 10 years old and valued at $1 billion or more by private investors or public markets.
Today, it’s widely accepted by the global VC & tech community that a ‘unicorn’ is a privately-held (i.e., not public) tech startup worth $1 billion or more on paper, irrespective of its founding date, sector of operations, and regional focus.
And according to that definition, there are currently seven unicorns in the African tech ecosystem, with the newest — Egypt’s MNT-Halan — being minted just last week.
Here’s an overview of the seven ‘Africa Tech’ unicorns.
Founded in 2002 in Nigeria as a nationwide transaction switching platform, Interswitch is Africa’s oldest unicorn.
The company today offers a variety of digital payment & commerce solutions including online payment gateways, interbank transaction switching and third-party card processing, card acquiring & issuance via domestic card scheme Verve, identity management and digital payment infrastructure for state governments, point-of-sale solutions, and more.
Founded in 2016, Flutterwave is a Nigerian API-driven platform that aggregates payment gateways across the continent, allowing merchants to accept card & alternative payments (e.g., mobile money and bank transfers) easily.
The company initially focused on global enterprise customers (e.g., helping Uber easily accept payments across various African markets), but has since diversified to offer a full range of products to a wide variety of customer groups with solutions like the Flutterwave Store, Flutterwave Capital, creator economy platform Disha, and more.
Co-founded in late 2017 by Opera, makers of the data-lite internet browser, and Balder Investment, an entity controlled by Chinese billionaire (and Opera Chairman & CEO) Yahui Zhou, OPay is a mobile payments platform that began operations in Nigeria in 2018.
The company’s strategy initially leaned on its motorcycle taxi ride-hailing service ORide, but it renewed its focus on payments after a legislative ban on commercial motorbike taxis.
Today, in addition to payment & money transfer services, OPay also offers airtime top-ups, loans, savings, and more to over 18 million registered app users via 500,000 agents across Nigeria, according to its website.
Piloted in 2016 and launched fully in 2017, Wave is a full-stack digital mobile money wallet initially focused on Francophone Africa.
The company offers a range of free or low-cost financial services including money transfers, bill payments, airtime top-ups, and more.
In Senegal, its first market, it has already beaten out the telcos to become the country’s largest mobile money provider, and today the majority of Senegal’s adult population uses Wave every month.
When considering the competition between banks, telcos, and fintechs for the future of financial services across the African continent, Wave is perhaps the top fintech to watch in the mobile money space.
Founded in 2014, Andela is today a talent marketplace that connects leading companies across the world to technology talent in emerging markets.
The company initially began its journey as a remote-engineering-as-a-service platform. It trained and hired junior software developers across Africa, then placed them with global businesses as full-time distributed engineers.
In 2019 however, the company announced a ‘strategic shift’ away from junior talent to focus on placing experienced, senior engineers.
And in 2020, the company moved away from its in-house, full-time employee model to become a talent marketplace that places external tech talent without prior Andela training or a pre-existing Andela relationship.
Launched in 2018, Chipper Cash is a cross-border, peer-to-peer money transfer platform.
In addition to cross-border money transfers, the company offers bill payments, airtime top-up services, virtual cards, stock marketing investing, crypto trading, and more.
According to the company’s website, it has over 5 million users, processes over $1.5 billion quarterly, and has issued over 300,000 virtual cards.
Strictly speaking, MNT-Halan was created in 2021 as a result of a share swap merger between two entities founded by Egyptian serial entrepreneur Mounir Nakhlar: ride-hailing & delivery platform Halan and microlending holding company MNT.
The merger happened after MNT’s 100% consolidation of Raseedy, the first interoperable digital wallet licensed by the Central Bank of Egypt. (And Raseedy lives on as Halan Cash.)
Today, MNT-Halan derives most of its revenue from lending — over $300M in 2022, it says — and has since shut down its ride-hailing operations.
In addition to disbursing over $2 billion in loans of various types (BNPL, vehicle financing, payroll lending, & more) since inception, the company also offers a variety of digital payments and e-commerce services (both B2C and FMCG B2B).
The last word
There you have it — the African tech ecosystem’s seven unicorns today.
It’s worth noting, however, that this list of African unicorns is largely based on historical paper valuations. And given current market conditions globally, those valuations might well be depressed today.
how many of the companies listed are still unicorns in today's market? so once unicorns but now looking more like pelicans.
and how many companies that would be unicorns based on revenues aren't on that list?
— Eghosa Omoigui (@EghosaO) February 2, 2023
Public market comps for Stripe have collapsed. Block (formerly Square) is down 70% from High Aug21, while Affirm has fallen 89% since its peak in Nov21. @PayPal is down 72% from its high. Applying this to our Fintechs. Do we still have Unicorns in Africa? https://t.co/CpeAgwx1or
— JasonNjoku (@JasonNjoku) February 4, 2023